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Two Dragons welcome the sunrise with an improvised dance atop the Andes. Photo by Ryan Gasper.

To Enter or Not

What directly preceded our entrance sparks an interesting conversation in itself. We saw the event taking place inside a building and of course I wanted to go in and see what it was about, but two of us four insisted we shouldn´t out of respect. From my view, taking the risk of rejection and embarrassment is how one learns things while traveling, and usually its not too hard to sense whether you´re welcome or not. But they did have a point–it seemed of real cultural importance, and walking in without a clue to a ceremony like that, you definitely risk offending or disturbing people. I decided that with the intentions to learn and observe, I would waltz in and give it a try.

Two stayed behind me and another went right in. We immediately encountered the two token excessively abrasive drunkards, who were a bit of a mess, but other than them (and even including them–very much, in fact), people seemed accepting of our presence, some encouraging our participation and engaging in friendly conversation. I sensed respect in their greetings. The men and women were separated into two different areas of the room, and in front of the men there was a band of coca leaves strewn out across the floor. Men were chatting and stuffing their mouths with the leaves; women were talking amongst themselves in their own circle.

The men began to take four coca leaves and place them in each mug that sat upon the band of coca, and I did the same as soon as I caught on. At one point I stepped conspicuously across the band of coca, which I had previously intuited but now immediately understood was a flagrant cultural misstep, as made clear in the reptilian-like hissing noises produced by the men who witnesses the offense. I turned to them and apologized in a rather alarmed manner, but they seemed to understand in the amusement amidst their displeasure that I didn´t mean any harm, that I was a clueless foreigner. Moments later, I was told by an elder man in ornate traditional dress that I was to apologize to all of the authorities, his description of said man making it clear that he was also one of them. Humility is not a strong spot of mine as a young American man, but I gathered all I had and went around to ask forgiveness. The first authority I apologized to encouraged me to repent my sins out loud in front of the entire gathering, but I couldn´t muster the will to gather everyone´s attention for a public apology, so I directed myself to two other authorities to excuse my behavior who promised that the punishment would take the form of a hefty fine. With laughs, I retreated back to my seat. -Just calm down- the man next to me on the bench said to me. I seemed to have been forgiven.

After that, rounds of chicha followed, through which I had to apologetically navigate my way out of intaking the alcoholic beverage. Some were more insistent than others. It turns out the whole ceremony ordeal was just a prelude to a long public meeting of sorts, largely conducted in the Aymara language, in which one by one the men stood up and talked for varying lengths of time. I sat there, understanding nothing, reflecting on why and how I was there. Even through my clueless misdeed, I still hadn´t felt a drop of hostility from anyone there. Were they too polite to tell me to get out of there? Or did they really not mind that some traveler, terribly out of place, was sitting in to learn something of their culture and customs? I came to the conclusion that I was happy with my decision to go in, didn´t feel as if I was intruding or causing damage. This may sound naive or disrespectful to some, but in my mind one´s intentions is probably the most important thing. Are you there to learn and interact and participate, or are you there for a facebook photo? People can probably tell. From my experience in this particular instance, I talked to many folks who seemed amused and interested in my presence, and observed a ton of compelling things about the way everything was conducted. Maybe that will merit another post.. In the mean time, it´s food for thought, yeah? I still don´t see black and white, no correct answer. But as for me, I see minimal harm in taking certain risks to learn more about the place where I´m at.

Peace to all the families, much love and all of us are alive so nothing to worry about back home. Later-